AUSTIN JONATZKE of Stevensville, Michigan, didn’t live a long life, but his family wants you to know how meaningful it was. He adored his redheaded nieces and nephew. He fished, camped, and cheered for the Dallas Cowboys. He had a kind heart.
His family also wants you to know that when he died at age 24 on July 2, 2017, it wasn’t for vague reasons—an unspecified “illness” or “accident.” They didn’t say he passed away “suddenly,” and leave it at that. Austin died, as they wrote in his obituary, when he lost a courageous battle with heroin addiction.
“During the last seven years of Austin’s life he struggle[d] and fought hard to overcome his substance abuse disorder. Austin was blessed to have the love and support of his family and many caring individuals to stand and fight with him during his battle. Austin attended Families Against Narcotics, where he shared his personal battle with opioids, in hopes to inform the community on the dangers of drug addiction and to offer support, acceptance and encouragement to all who have been affected by this terrible disease.”
Stories about the opioid crisis aren’t just being told in expansive features and smartly reported articles. They’re being told in the obituaries. They carry the most weight across the huge swaths of the country that are near-news deserts, like southwest Michigan, where the Jonatzkes live. In these places, there aren’t any deeply reported local stories about heroin use. But there are obituaries. Lots of them.
Obituaries for people who aren’t public figures are written by family members and distributed on memorial sites, funeral home webpages, “celebration of life” programs, crowdfunding sites that raise money to support the deceased’s family, and whatever community papers remain. When STAT News put together a snapshot of a year’s worth of obituaries for people who suffered addiction—one for each of the estimated 636 Americans who die of an opioid-related overdose each week—it relied on Legacy.com.
These obituaries track the devastating human cost of a modern-day plague, challenge the stigma of addiction, and build a case for better public policy and social services. In some cases, the person who died specifically requested that their story be told honestly.
Like the Jonatzkes, the families of the 52 people featured at STAT News felt it was important to use the obituary as a place for advocacy. “The disease of addiction thrives in darkness and must be defeated in the light,” read the obit for a 22-year-old Pennsylvania woman. There was a direct plea in the obituary for 38-year-old man, also from Pennsylvania: “In honor of Dan’s memory, please contact your local legislators to advocate for an increase of funding for addiction and mental health research and treatment.”
“The reason I want to tell the story is, well, number one, I don’t want Austin to be forgotten, I don’t want his struggle to be forgotten, and on top of that, I don’t want his struggle to be all people know of him,” said Jill Jonatzke, one of Austin’s sisters.
Austin is part of my extended family, my brother’s brother-in-law. I’ve seen up-close how well-loved he was, and how his struggle has made advocates out of his family members. Amy Jonatzke, his mother, is the board president of the Southwest Michigan chapter of Families Against Narcotics. Austin, as his obituary noted, attended FAN meetings and shared his story as a way to counsel and educate others. Jill Jonatzke is a schoolteacher who hoped to help her brother arrange a series of school assemblies where he could talk to students about his experience with drugs.
AN HONEST OBITUARY LIKE AUSTIN’S is a tried-and-true strategy for humanizing a public health epidemic. In the early days of the AIDS crisis, obituaries often elided the cause of death because of the “reluctance of newspapers to reveal not one but two things due to stigma and shame: certain details of someone’s life (the fact that they were gay), as well as how they died,” said Vanessa Gould in an email. Gould directed Obit, a documentary about The New York Times’ obituary section.
In an era when members of the White House administration suggested that HIV/AIDS was a just punishment for people who were gay or used intravenous drugs, community papers like the Bay Area Reporter were at the forefront in changing the culture. Some weeks, the Reporter published as many as 31 obituaries. In 1989, it published an eight-page section titled “AIDS Deaths” which pictured all the people who had died of the disease during the previous year.
“In those days there were a lot of gay men who came to San Francisco to escape their families of origin, and often the BAR obituary was the only public sign of where they had gone or what had happened to them,” the writer Ralph Buchbalter observed when the BAR obituary archive went online in 2009.
In 1989, the Chicago Tribune published a story about how newspapers were split on whether, in the AIDS era, it was important to publish a cause of death in an obituary. If it wasn’t mentioned, “a good obit writer” left clues so that a discerning reader could figure it out, according to the story. It noted that the Tribune itself didn’t require a cause of death in its obituaries, but when it appeared, it was often AIDS. That was because “some members of the homosexual community have encouraged friends and family to acknowledge AIDS as a cause of death, in order to de-mystify the disease.”
When no obituaries were submitted to BAR in 1998, for the first time since the crisis hit the San Francisco area, it was so newsworthy that BAR published both an article and an editorial about it. The Los Angeles Times reprinted the article (“Good News—On An Obit Page”) and news outlets from Philadelphia to Detroit to Austin picked up the AP report. By diligently chronicling the lives of those that died, the weekly paper became a de facto metric for a sign of progress in treating the disease.
OBITS HAVE LONG SERVED as our “collective memory,” reflecting what our society prizes and what it abhors. As recently as the 1950s, cancer was unmentionable in obituaries. Some believed it to be contagious, and it often affected body parts that were seen as unseemly—breasts, ovaries, cervix, prostate, testicles, colon, bladder—so families didn’t want the neighbors to know about it. Suicide has also long been a taboo in death notices.
Today, another public health crisis shows no signs of letting up. About 59,000 people died of overdoses last year, a 19-percent increase over the previous year, making overdoses the leading cause of death for Americans under 50. Many grieving families feel that honesty is their first and best weapon. “Silence = Death,” as the old slogan goes.
After Austin’s obituary was published and shared, coworkers reached out to Amanda Jonatzke, Austin’s other sister, and her husband (my brother) to tell them how their families, too, are fighting addiction. But Jill Jonatzke said that people responded only by saying, “I’m so sorry.” Nobody said to her, “I understand. I’ve been in a similar situation.” Given the numbers, she believes that’s not because their lives haven’t been touched by addiction, but because there’s still so much shame around it.
By being transparent, even while the Jonatzkes struggle with the loss of Austin, her family hopes that his obituary—along with tens of thousands of others each year—inspires others to speak up and create the change needed to save lives.
CJR’s health care reporting is sponsored in part by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the Bay Area Reporter. CJR regrets the error.Anna Clark is a journalist in Detroit. Her writing has appeared in ELLE Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Next City, and other publications. Anna edited A Detroit Anthology, a Michigan Notable Book, and she was a 2017 Knight-Wallace journalism fellow at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Poisoned City: Flint’s Water and the American Urban Tragedy, published by Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt. She is online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark.